Gottfried von Kalmbach — Part Seven

“You dog,” said the emir, “there is war in the wind and the Archduke has need of your sword.”

“Devil eat the Archduke,” answered Gombuk; “Zapolya is a dog because he stood aside at Mohacz and let us, his comrades, be cut to pieces, but Ferdinand is a dog too. When I am penniless I sell him my sword. Now I have two hundred ducats and these robes which I can sell to any Jew for a handful of silver, and may the devil bite me if I draw sword for any man while I have a penny left. I’m for the nearest Christian tavern, and you and the Archduke may go to the devil.”

Then the emir cursed him with many great curses, and Gombuk rode away laughing, huh! huh! huh! and singing a song about a cockroach named –

— Robert E. Howard, “The Shadow of the Vulture”

Sometimes Gottfried von Kalmbach was carefree to the point of irresponsibility, and sometimes he brooded. The summer of 1527 found him brooding. His plunder from the sack of Rome had gone, and staunch old von Frundsberg, the best man at that spree of city-wide burglary (which he had tried vainly to prevent) was wounded and destitute. While he entered a decline, traitors like John Zapolya and tyrants like the Sultan of Turkey flourished. The devil ruled.

Von Kalmbach rode east from Germany into Austria again. Little as he cared for the Archduke Ferdinand, he was now penniless, and as he said, in those circumstances he sold Ferdinand his sword. The Archduke was now lord of the western third of Hungary, since its young king had perished. There was ample fighting to be done if that was to be saved from falling to the Ottomans like the rest. After the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had taken Buda and Pesth, and removed many of its people to Istanbul as slaves, but not reduced it to a Turkish vassal city permanently; not then. Probably he did not judge that the time was right, and left lasting conquest for later.

While von Kalmbach had been merrily taking part in the sack of Rome, the treacherous voivode of Transylvania, John Zapolya, who had left the Hungarians in the lurch at the battle of Mohacs, had been tussling with his rival Ferdinand for the rule of Hungary. In September 1527 they fought the Battle of Tarcal, which the Austrians won, forcing Zapolya to retreat into Transylvania. He had betrayed the Hungarians at Mohacs instead of supporting them as promised, in order to gain the Turkish Sultan’s favor and become vassal king of Hungary. Suleiman’s diplomats had been all honey at the time, but this failure of Zapolya’s made the Ottoman lord doubtful of his value. Desperate to prove his worth to Suleiman, the voivode raised a new army of about 15,000 men, nearly all Transylvanians, Poles and Serbs, and advanced into Hungary again in 1528.

During this time a new diplomatic player had entered the game, one who appears to have been Zapolya’s equal in two-faced treachery. He was Hieronymus Jaroslaw Laski, whom REH mentions early in “Shadow of the Vulture” as “Jerome Lasczky, the Polish count palatine”. Laski had indeed been Palatine of Inowroclaw and Seradia, but after Mohacs he decided he could do better for himself than that. He ignored the policies of his own king, Sigismund I of Poland, an ally of Austria, and carried out a diplomatic mission for Zapolya. He raised a considerable sum in gold from France, but by the time he returned with it, Zapolya had been beaten at Tarcal.

Early in 1528, Laski went as an envoy to Istanbul for Zapolya. In REH’s words Laski “like a suppliant, asked on his bended knees” for the crown of Hungary, and was given “honor, gold and promises of patronage, for which he had paid with pledges abhorrent even to his avaricious soul – selling his ally’s subjects into slavery, and opening the road through the subject territory to the very heart of Christendom.”

Laski had the effrontery to negotiate a ten years’ truce between his old master King Sigismund and the Sultan while he was about it – which he had no more authority to do than to offer the Sultan Spain and England. Shortly afterwards, Zapolya advanced into Hungary with his mixed army, and an army of Ferdinand’s, made up of Austrians, Germans and Hungarians, met it under the command of Count Balint Torok and the Slovenian, Johann Katzianer.

Balint Torok is one of the many colorful characters of the period that REH did not mention in “Shadow of the Vulture.” He couldn’t have mentioned, let alone done justice, to all of them, of course, or the story would never have moved forward. He wasn’t writing in the days of Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. However, in spite of belonging to the royal party of Hungary originally, and fighting ferociously against Zapolya on this and other occasions, Torok went over to Zapolya’s side later. He was fabulously rich, so perhaps he saw that as his best chance of keeping his fortune and lands. He fell from Turkish favor in the end, and ended his life a prisoner in the Seven Towers of Istanbul in 1551.

Gottfried von Kalmbach was with Torok and Katzianer in 1528, taking much satisfaction in this chance to strike back at the detested Zapolya. The voivode had meant to march upon the Hungarian capital, Buda, but was intercepted near Kosice and could not carry out his intention. Then the Serbian and Polish mercenaries in Zapolya’s force turned against each other, wrecking his plans completely. Ferdinand’s army trounced the traitor. Gottfried waded in blood like a happy tiger, though he was disappointed in his hopes to kill Zapolya personally. The voivode fled for shelter to Poland, and King Sigismund granted him refuge, but refused to take hostile action against Austria. As it happened, Jerome Laski had already gained the support of the Sultan for Zapolya, so that was no immense setback.

Unaware of this, Archduke Ferdinand resolved to send an embassy of his own to the Sublime Porte. Its purpose was to negotiate the disposal of the Hungarian crown. He chose, as we read in “Shadow of the Vulture,” a blunt old war-horse of a general named Habordansky to lead it.

Gottfried, a man with a heroic if turbulent and undisciplined past, pleaded to be part of the embassy. He did not think it very likely to succeed, but he remembered the charge of the thirty-two knights at Mohacs and their attempt to kill the Sultan Suleiman. He was the lone survivor of the charge. He promised the ghosts of his friend Albert Marczali and thirty others that he would amend that failure if possible. Perhaps, if he came into the Sultan’s presence … he could not kill Suleiman and survive, but then he had not volunteered for the death-charge with Marczali in order to survive. Suleiman the Magnificent threatened all Christian Europe.

Habordansky accepted him. The blunt old warrior found Gottfried a man to his taste. He had no idea what was in the Bavarian’s mind.

Gottfried did not wear the arms of his family to Istanbul with Ferdinand’s envoys. He was sure the Sultan would remember the one man in Marczali’s suicide charge who came close enough to wound him!  The von Kalmbach arms had shown proudly on his shield and coat, even through the dirt of battle, the day he had almost killed the Sultan, and he knew Suleiman would not forget that silver and purple division with the device of a bear. For that matter, he had seen Gottfried’s face, the German’s helmet having been hacked from his head, but only briefly, in the confusion of battle. Besides, there had been blood obscuring his visage. He supposed he was safe enough from recognition.

He underestimated Suleiman’s concern for detail. His spies had informed him there had been thirty-two knights in Marczali’s death charge. Their heads had been piled before Suleiman’s tent after Mohacs, and by counting them he had ascertained there were only thirty-one. It did not follow that the missing man survived, of course; so many hacked and butchered corpses are piled on a battlefield that they cannot all be accounted for. But Suleiman remembered.

As it happened, the whole embassy was soon in trouble, not von Kalmbach alone. At the first audience in the purple-domed royal chamber he saw there was no chance to assassinate the Sultan here. Not even if a man was willing to die immediately afterwards. It was literally impossible. He was unarmed, and between him and Suleiman’s throne-dais stood twenty Solaks, picked armored warriors of the Sultan’s guard. In addition, Gottfried and the others, General Habordansky included, entered the Sultan’s presence with two powerful janissaries gripping the arms of each. “Thus were foreign envoys presented to the sultans,” REH informs us, “ever since that red day by Kossova when Milosh Kabilovitch, knight of slaughtered Serbia, had slain the conqueror Murad with a hidden dagger.”

I’m with REH. Good for Milosh. Who invited Murad to make a butcher’s yard out of Serbia?

Habordansky seems to have been insufficiently humble for the Sultan’s liking. Jerome Laski had come first and been well received. Habordansky, too late and too blunt, found himself and the Archduke’s other envoys tossed into durance in “the grim Castle of the Seven Towers that overlooks the Sea of Marmora,” the same prison in which Balint Torok was to end his life twenty-two years later. Habordansky, Gottfried and the rest sweated over their fates for nine months before being released and brought before the Sultan again.

Suleiman was about to continue his campaign against Christian Europe. His next objective was Austria; he considered that Archduke Ferdinand had tried his patience long enough. He scornfully presented each of the envoys with rich Turkish robes and two hundred ducats, and charged Habordansky with a curt message for his master the Archduke: “I now make ready to visit him in his own lands, and … if he fails to meet me at Mohacs or at Pesth, I will meet him beneath the walls of Vienna.”

Then, according to Howard’s story, the Sultan noticed Gottfried von Kalmbach and spoke to him, finding something about him familiar. He assured the German that he had seen his face, though he could not recall where. Gottfried, sweating inside his unfamiliar robes, no doubt, and thinking this was the end, answered that he had been at the siege of Rhodes, to which the Sultan snapped that many men had been there. Gottfried agreed. “De l’Isle Adam was there.”  That might have been his finish – the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John had cost the Turk sixty thousand men in his defense of Rhodes – but REH tells us the Sultan decided von Kalmbach wasn’t subtle enough to be planting a barb, and let it pass. The embassy left Istanbul and began its return to Vienna.

It was after von Kalmbach had left his city that the Sultan finally remembered where he had seen him before. He said as much to his vizier, Ibrahim, who was as close to him as a brother. “I could not mistake those blue eyes … the knight that wounded me at Mohacz was this German, Gottfried von Kalmbach … I love brave men, but our blood is not so common that an unbeliever may with impunity spill it on the ground for the dogs to lap up. See ye to it.”

Ibrahim did proceed to see to it. He sent a company of Tatars to bring von Kalmbach to Istanbul again. As Howard has him say cynically, “The persons of envoys are sacred, but this matter is not official.” The Tatars failed, however, because Gottfried had parted from the embassy in disgust, with the words quoted at the head of this post. He rode hard afterwards, to get out of Turkish reach, because the Sultan’s recollection of his face made him uneasy. He wanted to be far away very quickly in case Suleiman the Magnificent remembered the specific instance – as of course he had.

Ibrahim decided that catching von Kalmbach was not a task for an ordinary man. He sent for Mikhal Oglu. That is his name as rendered in “The Shadow of the Vulture,” and in Fairfax Downey’s The Grande Turke, from which REH got much of his background for “TSotV.” (I believe he was actually known in the Sultan’s army as “Ahmad Mikhaloglu.”) I’d never have known but for the incomparable Patrice Louinet, and a tip o’ the hat for that favor, bejabers. As Patrice says, “Mikhal Oglu” means “son or descendant of Mikhal,” and that appears to refer to Michael of the Peaked Beard, a Greek potentate who ruled Khirenkia in Phrygia in the days of Othman I, the founder of Ottoman greatness, and became Othman’s most loyal henchman.

His sixteenth-century descendant was the leader of the Sultan’s Akinji corps. Germans called them the “Sackmen.” The French referred to them as “Faucheurs” and “Ecorcheurs” – the “Mowers” and “Flayers.” They were irregular light cavalry, neither paid nor maintained. They had to support themselves from enemy country and live by pillage. Their function was to ride ahead of the main army on a campaign, fan out far beyond the general line of march, and spread terror by arson, massacre and enslavement. Mikhal Oglu was their commander. In REH’s words, his “very name was a shuddering watchword of horror to all western Asia.”

His by-name was the Vulture. He wore vulture feathers on his jeweled helmet and a pair of vulture’s wings attached to the back of his “gilded chain-mail hauberk”. They spread wide in the wind when he rode. He wasn’t alone in that; other commanders and horsemen in the Ottoman cavalry affected that device, and certain Christian heavy cavalry like the Polish Winged Hussars did the same. But Mikhal Oglu was outstanding for merciless slaughter even in the sixteenth century. He wasn’t so much an irregular cavalry leader as the hard-riding personification of death.

This was the person Grand Vizier Ibrahim sent to bring back Gottfried von Kalmbach’s head.

Images by Rafael Kayanan, Jozef Brandt and Others

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven